Bringing History to Life with Augmented Reality

Living Data Labs

Island Farm Prisoner of War Camp near Bridgend, South Wales – a site of significant historical interest following an escape by 70 German prisoners in March 1945, the biggest escape attempt in Britain during the Second World War.

The problem: much of the camp was demolished in 1994 to make way for a proposed extension to a science park, and the remaining building (‘Hut 9’), after being boarded up in 2004 to discourage vandalism, has become the home to a colony of rare lesser horseshoe bats. Access to the Island Farm heritage site is therefore very restricted.

Living Data Ltd, a Caerphilly-based SME established in 2011, was given the job of bringing Island Farm back to life by Bridgend County Borough Council. Using computer-generated images and videos, Living Data has recreated life in the camp and the daring escape. Melinda Russell explains:

“The project involved recreating the interior of the one remaining building – the building that the prisoners escaped from. We had to recreate the interior because the public is no longer allowed inside. It involved going in and measuring and photographing everything. There was no electricity so this was all by torch light in a freezing cold December. We needed to ensure we could recreate everything accurately, including the paintings that the soldiers had done on the walls. All of this had to be made available via an app.”

While the creative industries work is only a small part of Living Data’s portfolio – with the main focus being to help clients gain insight from potentially disparate large (‘big data’) databases through data analytics – it is an area that can potentially add great value to the Welsh tourism industry. Nic Caine describes another of Living Data’s ‘time travel’ projects designed to bring history to life through augmented reality:

Marching Camp

“Another thing we’re doing on the creative side is augmented reality heritage tourism maps, bringing history to life by revealing what would have been in a location maybe 20 or even 2000 years ago. For example we have recently ‘rebuilt’ a Roman marching camp and a Roman fortlet for Brecon Beacons National Park Authority as part of the Romans in Carmarthenshire project. You can now go to a field just outside Trecastle and using the augmented reality app that we created (RomanWalk) see what seem to be just lumps on the hill transform into ramparts surrounding over 400 tents guarded by Roman centurions and auxiliaries.

“I think we’re pushing the boundaries of tourism and heritage interpretation. Our approach to the use of augmented reality technology brings together information from numerous sources including archaeological information, maps, expert input (in the case of the Roman project Roman historians and lecturers from Cardiff University), local knowledge and experiences. Skilled developers, animators, graphic designers, actors and script writers then bring it all to life.

To help preserve the environment, the app that was created also keeps a count of the number of visits to the park, so that the park authority can understand the impact of visitors on the site, for example through footfall and erosion.

Projects that make heavy use of computer graphics and videos require high performance computing (HPC) for a task known as rendering – the process of generating realistic images based on a set of model files that describe the scene. For the Island Farm project, 16 videos needed to be created:

“Unfortunately at that time HPC Wales didn’t have the software installed on the machine in time for our project so we actually had to use an overseas render farm. We had one machine that was doing nothing but rendering and was running constantly for about 3–4 weeks. We used that render farm whilst HPC Wales got the Mental Ray software ready for us.

“Having a local resource like HPC Wales is important as some of the overseas resources aren’t as fast and it’s important to have a local point of contact to talk to. With HPC Wales you have much more powerful computer resources available and a higher speed interconnect which makes the renders run very fast. We had one that took four weeks and when we re-rendered it on HPC Wales’ system it took about two days. That’s a massive speed up. The fact that it just takes two days means we can schedule time to share the results back with the client and we know we have plenty of time to make any changes.

“Using an overseas render farm, it could take up to five days to download your data, and at that point you start to negate the benefit of choosing them in the first place. One of the things HPC Wales offers is to actually go to one of their offices with a disk drive and offload it onto their network directly, which would be quite attractive to any small organisation or new enterprise that doesn’t have access to a robust network.

“We’re doing another project in Carmarthenshire which will be rendered out with HPC Wales, recreating the interior of the house as it would have been. The house has a cloister garden – the only secular cloister garden remaining in Europe. The house fell into disrepair for many years, and was bought by an American who handed it over to a trust to renovate and restore it to full use. Because it was deserted for many years it got looted, so most of the furniture is gone. But there were a lot of pictures of how it looked so part of the project is for us to use HPC Wales’ systems to recreate some of the rooms based on the photographs.”

“You can do high quality renders on our individual machines, but if you want to render a small sequence, it’s much more efficient to do it on HPC Wales’ system. You can render out a hundred frames overnight or in a few hours, composite them together and that can go to the client in the morning. It’s much more efficient than waiting a week to get some output.

Melinda and Nic hope that Living Data can grow its business, expanding both the augmented reality and ‘big data’ work from its Welsh location. Having expertise in app development, augmented reality, animation and big data within a single company coupled with access to HPC services via HPC Wales makes Living Data unique. Melinda observes:

“We’re one of the very few companies that actually offers the full range of services – we work from the initial idea with the client and help them explore how best to make use of the digital technology. We don’t just go in and deliver what we think they want.

Nic and Melinda conclude:

“We have worked in the computer industry for many years. We lived in Wales and, because we were both graduates of Cardiff University, it made a lot of sense to base the business in Wales. There’s really good support from Welsh Government. The Welsh Innovation Centre for Enterprise and Caerphilly Council have been exceptionally helpful; and HPC Wales has been a very useful resource to us. Having worked in various areas around the world, Wales is actually not a bad place to start a business.

“The heritage and tourism apps we’re doing will help bring more visitors to Wales and will give them a higher quality experience than they’d get from looking at a guide book about the subject. This will encourage them to stay and explore more and to tell their friends and family to do the same, increasing the income flowing into Wales.”